Teaching Strategies

Interactive Notebooks: No Special Hardware Required

Here's an old-school interactive tool: a spiral-bound notebook set up as a simple, functional system for students to create, write, and explore ideas all in the same place.
August 30, 2016
A stack of four notebooks are on a classroom desk with three pencils lying on top of them. A blurred out chalkboard is shown in the background.
iStock.com/Pamela Moore

Before I started using interactive notebooks, I got by, but barely. I'd make multiple copies of every handout for students who were constantly losing theirs. Students would take notes sometimes, and sometimes they wouldn't. All of my grades focused on the finished products, never on the process. I had few or no opportunities to explore the texts that we were studying in class using visual, logical, intrapersonal, or interpersonal learning styles. If I wanted students to write, I had to collect every page that they wrote, and I inevitably had a stack of unread notebook pages on my desk at the end of every day. Classes were discussion all day, every day, with me as the main source of energy for that discussion.

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It was an exhausting mess.

I've been using interactive notebooks in my classes since 2005, and every single teaching resource that I create fits this format. I could never go back to teaching without them.

A Simple Yet Effective System

My interactive notebooks are simple spiral-bound notebooks into which students glue or tape my handouts. It's not especially fancy, and there are no pop-up cut outs or pages to color in. It's just a simple, functional way for students to create, write, and explore ideas all in the same place.

By introducing interactive notebooks into my classes. . .

  • I've gained a system for classroom management and organization.
  • Every lesson takes advantage of a different learning style.
  • Students have much more ownership of the entire learning process.
  • While my students write almost every day in class, I collect that writing only once every month or two.

Most importantly, I'm not (quite) as worn out at the end of the day.

This is how my system works.

1. The notebook setup is fairly quick and very important. And it's worth it to make sure that we are all (literally) on the same page.

  • Students make a cover page with their name and class period.
  • The table of contents lists any handouts or information that they might need later on.
  • We number every page, and then we make sure that we all have the same right and left.

And that's it.

2. I encourage more than one learning style. When I use interactive notebooks, I have a daily reminder to diversify my lesson plans and focus on more than one learning style.

The left side is always something creative. Most often, it's writing -- five-minute freewrites to start or end the class. Sometimes it's for charts, drawings, or notes on a group activity.

The right side is for objective material. This is where they'll put any notes from the class discussion or (extremely rare) lecture. It's also where they'll put questions that they complete in groups, with partners, or on their own. If there's going to be a test on the material, they only need to to study the right-hand pages.

3. I have a few tricks for managing the day-to-day process. For example, I keep a running list of page numbers and assignments visible in the classroom so that students don't have to ask me 20 times a day, "What page is that on?" (Not that it completely stops them.)

Another one of my key tools is a stamp. Whenever work is due, I go around the room and take a quick look at all of the students' notebooks, maybe reading one or two answers just as a spot check. If the work is finished on time, they get a stamp. Then, when I grade the notebooks, I simply count the stamps. If they have them all, then they get 100 points on their homework grade.

4. Grading the notebooks is fairly painless. It's actually quite fun at times. I first make a quick pass to check for missing or unfinished work. Fifty percent of the notebook grade is an overall grade, and I take off points for missing or incomplete pages.

Then comes the fun part. The other 50 percent of their notebook grade is based on just four pages. Students choose three for me to grade, and I choose one of those. They get to show me their best work, I get to learn what they like and what they're proud of, and it feels like a conversation with each individual student. I'm not grading the same page over and over, and ultimately, I find that students often do their best work in their notebook where there is little pressure. (Why they freeze when they read the word "essay" is a whole other topic.)

A Cure for Exhaustion?

One of the great pieces of advice that I've received as a teacher is that the students should be more tired than I am by the end of class. I still feel exhausted at times, and sometimes my classroom still feels like a mess, but by using interactive notebooks, I get to preserve a little more of myself for the end of the day.

Where do you expend the most energy in your classes? Would interactive notebooks help you become a less exhausted teacher? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.